Whether you’re attending a wedding, an event that calls for cocktail attire, or a formal night at sea, it’s imperative to pack smart. After all, dressy occasions essentially require a traveler to pack twice the clothes: one casual set and one formal set. Moreover, intelligent packing is crucial for keeping expensive and delicate clothes—from a wedding gown or bridesmaid dress to a suit—wrinkle- and rip-free. With that in mind, here’s how to pack formal wear, including tips on what to bring and how to get it in your suitcase.
Use Your Airline’s Closet
Protect your dress or suit from wrinkles and various overhead-bin hazards by storing it in the closet on the plane. Not all planes have closets (when they do, they’re often in first or business class), so you’ll need to contact your airline to be sure that you’ll have a place to hang your item. Once onboard, ask a member of the flight crew if he or she will hang your garment. Flight crew isn’t obligated to put your chiffon bridesmaid dress in the plane’s closet, so ask nicely. You’re basically dependent on their graciousness in this case.
Commit to One Pair of Dressy Shoes
Want to bring a carry-on only? You’ll need to pack sparingly. So use the one-shoe rule. Forget about matching a pair of shoes with each formal outfit. Pack one neutral pair of heels or dress shoes that go with all your dressy getups. For women, a metallic or neutral-colored heel coordinates with almost anything. We like these neutral pumps from Cole Haan or this pair of metallic heels from Nordstrom. Men should choose either a black or brown pair of leather brogues (like this pair by Steve Madden)—whichever color works best with your suits and tuxes.
Get a Great Garment Bag
When packing a formal dress, suit, or tux to carry on the plane, keep in mind that your garment bag will count as one carry-on item. But you want to bring your books and your neck pillow and your computer too, right? The solution: Get a carry-on that features a built-in garment bag, like this one from Travelpro. The Rolo Adventures is one part garment bag, one part duffel, so it can hold personal items as well as suits and dresses.
One more thing to remember: Your dress will have to pass through airport security if you plan to bring it on the plane. According to the TSA Blog, “Ideally, the dress can lay flat in its garment bag or other packaging and fit through the X-ray machine. If it can’t, our officers can screen the dress manually, but this will require opening the garment bag. Rest assured that our officers will use gloves for the alternate screening to avoid damaging the dress.”
Mix and Match with Casual Clothes
The trick to packing less when your itinerary involves occasions that call for cocktail attire or formal wear is to coordinate dressier items with more casual ones. Mix and match your formal pants, shirt, or skirt with jeans, shorts, or tees to build more looks with fewer pieces. For women, this can be as simple as throwing an oversized sweater over a cocktail dress (like this) and adding some flats, or pairing a dressy blouse with a casual, relaxed pant during the day. (A slouchy pair of jeans will dress down even the fanciest silk blouse.) Men can wear a smart white dress shirt with jeans and a blazer as casual wear or opt for a classic pair of shoes that can be dressed up or down.
Pack Your Suit with Care
Folding a suit is arguably one of packing’s greatest challenges. There are umpteen YouTube videos on the matter, featuring various folding and rolling strategies. In How to Pack a Cat (and Other Tricky Packing Tips), I recommend using packing folders, plastic dry-cleaner bags, or tissue paper. WikiHow features a step-by-step guide that recommends turning the jacket inside out and placing the item in a plastic bag. It’s also smart to dry-clean your suit (or dress) shortly before departure, as a freshly pressed garment will be less prone to wrinkles. To learn more, see How to Pack a Suit in Your Carry-on.
Make a Dress with Matching Separates
Think outside the dress, ladies. Coordinating separates—a matching top and skirt in lieu of a dress—are perfect for even the most proper black-tie occasions. Separates that match can look surprisingly formal. Plus, they’re a smart option to pack because you can pair the pieces with casual wear during the day.
Invest in a Smart Clutch
Find a clutch that packs well and can transition from day to night. I adore my lightweight envelope clutch, which doesn’t take up much suitcase space because it’s so flat—and it goes with everything. A neutral clutch will look chic whether you’re mingling during cocktail hour or browsing city markets on a sunny morning.
Get a Rental
You may not have to pack anything dressy at all if you’re planning to attend a formal night at sea—and you’re a guy, that is. Cruise lines commonly offer for-rent formal wear for men. Royal Caribbean rents Perry Ellis tuxes starting at $89 per night. Cruisers on Carnival, Princess, Holland America, and others can rent tuxes through CruiselineFormal.com. Sadly, there’s no at-sea equivalent for the ladies.
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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.